Western understandings of weaponry have limited application to Africa. In ancient Africa the separation between military and civilian life was not as distinct as in the West. While European weapons were made to kill, ancient African weaponry came in a wide variety of forms developed for use in political, religious, or other ritual or ceremonial contexts; not all were designed to kill.
Weaponry in Africa began with rock. The oldest surviving weapons in the world are pebbles chipped into blades that were found in Africa. These weapons also could double as tools or perhaps were an adaptation from tools; their use as tools no doubt preceded their use as weapons. These rough weapons advanced into knives made of sharpened rock, spears with stone tips, and hand axes shaped like almonds. One type of hand ax, the cleaver, has been found only in Africa. It had a hefty blade used for hacking, slashing, and cutting.
A wide variety of raw materials, including quartzite, hornfels, mudstone, and chert, was used in southern Africa for stone point production. Herodotus reported that Africans used spears with heads constructed from the sharpened horns of antelope. The points, with distinctive tangs, were bound to spears with plant twine, bark, leather thongs, and sinew. The binding materials would have been moistened before application. Moistened bindings expand and become more pliable before contracting to their original size upon drying. This shrinkage, and the fact that individual strands on drying tend to adhere to one another, leaves the point firmly secured on the haft.
The first long-range missile weapon was probably a sling, although no ancient African slings have survived. Slings were originally used by ancient shepherds to scare predatory animals that were attacking their herds. They gradually became weapons of warfare, used by light-armed troops against similarly defenseless warriors. The sling consisted of two leather or sinew straps. Each strap was attached at one end to the sides of a small piece of leather or cloth. The other end of one strap, held by the slinger, was looped securely around a finger or wrist, while the other strap, usually knotted to provide a grip, was held freely between the thumb and forefinger of the throwing hand. The missile, a stone, was placed on a piece of leather, and the straps were pulled taut, creating a pocket for the stone. A rotary motion of the wrist, usually three or four rotations, gave the stone momentum when the unlooped, held strap was released. A skilled thrower could be very accurate, and the high-speed missile could kill.
Copper technology indicates that ancient Africans mastered a considerable degree of the pyrotechnology needed for copper smelting. Evidence of early copper metallurgy has been radiocarbon dated from 4140 b. c. e. to 2700 b. c. e. in western Africa. Copper products included thin arrowheads. There is evidence of iron production in East Africa from about 1400 b. c. e. The date suggests that iron production might not have been introduced from elsewhere but instead developed in the region. Iron ore is distributed widely across Africa. Stone artifacts were always present at early Iron Age sites in the form of arrow points and axes, with metal weapons used as status objects. Africans employed iron to make tools, weapons, and points for weapons. Many central African people believed that, except on a few designated occasions, women should not come into contact with iron. To do so could render a woman barren and destroy the power of the iron products with which she came into contact. However, other parts of Africa accepted women warriors, and the Teda of the Tibesti region developed weaponry specifically for women.
The Iron Age brought the use of throwing knives as missiles. Throwing knives, additionally used as long-distance currency, were more popular than javelins. The sharp spikes of these weapons could inflict severe wounds on practically nude enemies. The classic form of the northern variety of throwing knife consists of a narrow piece of iron, up to 21/2 feet in length, with a projecting spur a little over halfway up. Below this spur are a straight shaft and a grip, which, if not made of bare iron, is usually made of hide or reptile skin. Above the spur is the blade, often broader than the shaft and curving forward in the same direction as the spur. Weapons of this type were distributed across a wide area of Sudanic Africa from northern Nigeria to the Blue Nile province of Sudan and deep into the Tibesti region of the Sahara.
The typical southern variety of throwing knife is generally smaller than the northern variety. It usually has a number of blades radiating from the central shaft and a grip of plaited vegetal material or, occasionally, of wire or hide. It is found in a small area of northern Gabon and in a broad belt from eastern Cameroon almost to the White Nile. The Zande kpinga, a southern type of throwing knife, is one of the few varieties whose aerodynamic qualities and consistent use as a missile have been well documented. The heavier northern throwing knife was used more often than the lighter southern variety for ceremonial purposes.
Not every weapon was intended for war. Weapons of various types were widely used in dance and masquerade throughout Africa. The musele, a Kota throwing knife conceived as a bird in profile with a long bill, was not designed to be thrown. The Kota, of the eastern Ogooué River region, saw the musele as a prestigious weapon of chiefs to be used in dances. Throwing knives of the Wadai region were also ornithologically inspired and designed for ceremonial purposes. Among the Kota and the Fang spears, knives, and swords were considered to be emblems of the owner’s status and were left on tombs of chiefs after death.
To protect against weapons, Africans used light armor that befitted their hot climate. The protective armor of the Benin warrior was a large wooden shield with a curved top and straight bottom. It was designed to be set on the ground to cover a kneeling man. The shields in the Sudan were made of hippopotamus or elephant hide. The shields of the Dinka were oval in outline and reinforced by a staff threaded through loops cut into the hide. The staff served as a handgrip. The Shuli had shields of a more nearly rectangular form, while the Shilluk and Nuer both had shields that could serve as clubs. The club shields were reinforced with a log with a cutout for the grip. The skin cover of ox hide was applied tightly in order to keep the wood from splitting when delivering blows with this shield club. Chiefs and other distinguished warriors throughout Africa wore helmets of padded basketwork or crocodile skin. For body armor they had quilted ponchos covered with leopard skins.